Reforming the United Nations is vital, but the question remains - reform for what? Is the goal simply to make the organization leaner and meaner, to cut jobs and trim the budget?
Despite Washington's demands for downsizing, such staff and program reductions do little to help the world solve the grave problems of war, famine, lack of education, lack of medical care, lack of clean water, and all the other arenas of UN responsibility.
Real UN reform must strengthen the global organization's ability to carry out the complicated jobs assigned to it in an increasingly divided world.
That kind of reform relies on its members - especially the most powerful - to meet their commitments. The United States owes $1.5 billion in overdue assessments, and that debt is the main reason the organization is forced constantly to borrow against peacekeeping funds and juggle overdrawn budget lines between agencies.
However constant the refrain, the problem is not that of a bloated bureaucracy. The UN's total worldwide staff of 51,000 numbers substantially fewer than the employees of the state of New Mexico (population 1.6 million). As the late UN senior adviser Erskine Childers delighted in pointing out, its $11 billion annual budget just about matches what Americans spend every year on beauty parlors and health clubs.
HISTORICALLY, the US stopped paying dues long before Congress decided that it didn't like former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In 1985, the Reagan administration accepted the Heritage Foundation's advice and refused to pay its 25 percent of the UN budget, which it is responsible for under international law.
Holding the organization hostage to US-dictated "reforms," the theory went, would bring the UN to heel. And the plan worked. US power at the UN increased. But the UN paid the price. Its work was undermined around the world.
The anti-UN argument of some would-be reformers identifies as "less necessary" those UN agencies that serve the needs of impoverished countries struggling to break free of the crippling legacy of colonialism and to level the unfair economic playing field on which they found themselves. These agencies usually include the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the UN Research Institute for Social Development, the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and sometimes even the UN Development Program. All are dismissed as duplicative and ineffective.
Supporters of the new World Trade Organization go further, pointing to it as a reason for the other agencies becoming obsolete, since the WTO also deals with trade and industry. The problem is the WTO was created to reflect the interests of the wealthiest industrial countries.
UN "reforms" and its financial crisis, driven by Washington's unpaid dues, have hit those development agencies hard. To cite just one instance, UNIDO's Technical Cooperation Projects, the backbone of its mandate to assist developing countries with access to industrial technology and electricity generation, were cut by almost one-third, from $159 million in 1989 to only $106 million by 1994.
The World Peace Foundation, for one, has dismissed the vital work of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has provided basic food, education, and housing for Palestinians made refugees since 1948, because "Palestinians now have their own Authority." But in fact, that new Authority has no access to the financial resources needed to feed, educate, or house its people.
Since the Authority's creation in 1993, Palestinian unemployment and poverty has skyrocketed, and more Palestinians, not fewer, are looking to UNRWA for help. Still, many donor nations have accepted the assessment that UNRWA is no longer needed, and the agency's budget has been slashed. As a result, it is unable to meet the new demand.
The new secretary-general of the UN has a hard task ahead. Whether he meets Washington's demands for slash-and-burn budget cuts, Kofi Annan has no guarantee that the world's sole superpower will feel any responsibility to pay its debt to the organization.
Despite propaganda to the contrary, the much-maligned Boutros-Ghali was already doing everything the White House demanded. During Boutros-Ghali's five-year term he imposed every budget cut (his was the first zero-growth UN budget in history), every lay-off (he cut UN headquarters staff by more than 1,000 people), and every chop-off-the-agencies campaign (he eliminated the UN's Center on Transnational Corporations as one of his first actions) that Washington wanted.
But it was not enough to generate overdue US assessments or protect his job. We should aim for a better, stronger UN, not a corporate-style downsized body paying attention only to its bottom line. Washington should begin the new year with a commitment to reform its own deadbeat ways and pay its dues.
* Phyllis Bennis is a fellow in UN affairs at the Institute for Policy Studies, and author of "Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN."